Sunday, January 31, 2010

Fiction Mondays: Getting Back to Short Stories

The past few months, I haven't worked on short stories at all. I've been working on everything else, and the whole time I've missed the format and the challenge of short stories. I haven't sent much out, haven't revisited anything I worked on and set aside. That's all over now.

Maybe I just wasn't feeling inspired--not that I didn't have ideas, just didn't have to focus or energy to execute them. But last night, I remembered a story I began writing a long time ago, about a guy who meets a girl who spends her time dumpster-diving. They meet a guy sleeping in a dumpster who believes the guy is some incarnation of Mercury. I liked the idea, but I just didn't know what to do with it. I now have a clearer idea, and I'm really excited to tackle it.

So this is just an announcement that my short-story mindset, dormant for several months, is kicking back on. Expect announcements on the process.

Finally: I am thinking about getting another tattoo, of the dove pierced by an arrow from the cover of Flannery O'Connor's "Everything that Rises Must Converge." Here's the image:

I'll need to tinker with the image and see if I can find a full version without the clipped-off wing, but I think it's going to go near the rib I broke a few years ago and the arrow will be red. It's a symbol for O'Connor's idea that violence precedes Grace (the dove is the Holy Spirit), which is an idea that really influences my writing.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Friday Films: Getting Lost

This Tuesday, ABC's "LOST" returns for its final season. I will be sad to see it end. What show has provided more discussion, more speculation, in its lifetime (okay, maybe the X-Files, but I didn't watch that)? The big mystery is: which questions will be answered? Which ones will be left at the end of the season? And most pressing: how will the season open? Usually the season premieres begin with someone going through their morning while a catchy pop song plays--who will it be this year, and what will the big twist be leading up to the title card?

I do have a big unified theory of LOST, but I'm not going to share it right now (and not because I'm afraid typing it out will somehow make me realize all of the holes in it). I will save that for geekier venues than this blog (they exist, I swear). But I will make a big prediction: the final episode will have a flashback, but it will be the Island's flashback--centuries of strife and war leading to the final confrontation. Whether this will be a big apocalyptic "The Stand"-like confrontation or a smaller one, I don't know.

So is everyone excited? I am. The show is like a big puzzle, and it's going to be interesting to see how the solution unfolds.

I'm going to wrap things up with two videos. One is the Thermals' song, "Now We Can See," which I think is about the show ("We were born on an island," "We still take the pills," "Our history was damaged"). And the other is a clip from LOST, of a brainwashing room called "Room 23." Note the similarities.

Spooky, right?

Friday, January 22, 2010

Friday Films: Man on Wire

Like I mentioned on Monday, I recently watched the documentary "Man on Wire," about Phillippe Petit's tightrope walk between the Twin Towers. I didn't realize until later this week that it won the Oscar for Best Documentary, but now that I know that, I'm almost even more impressed. Not because it won the Oscar, but because as far as documentaries go, it's different from most that I've seen. What distinguishes it from other documentaries is its format: it's presented like a caper film.

The film opens with a shot of a calendar showing the date of "Le Coup," followed by a reenactment of Petit and his crew loading their vehicles, setting out toward the towers. It's all very fast-moving, the reenactments filmed like French New Wave films, cutting quickly to interviews with the participants looking back on the event. As soon as the filmmakers set up the central event, they jump back to its conception, Philippe Petit reading about the towers in a doctor's office in 1968, and then to his first major walk, between the towers of the Notre Dame cathedral.

It's really interesting to see the participants, now in their 50s or 60s, look back at their youths. They talk about how they knew what they were doing was illegal, but it wasn't mean, wasn't hurting anyone or doing any damage. It's all extremely innocent, and I think that's what the filmmakers intended. There's never a mention of the 9/11 attacks, but they're kind of in the subtext during the whole movie. From the moment they show the crew get into their vans to sneak into the building, your mind can't help but contrast it with the months of preparation and falsifying documents and training that would go into perpetuating a terror attack. It's strange that it makes you think about that, but I don't believe for a minute that it's accidental.

In the interviews with the participants, they talk about how Petit, when he saw the towers, knew that they were meant for him. They were built for him to walk between. So in their memories of the event, there's this undercurrent of sadness, which I took as some combination of nostalgia and a sense of loss for the towers themselves. The walk between was accomplished just once, and can never be done again. One of the co-conspirators actually begins to cry as he talks about it, and the effect is really moving and sets a tone for the rest of the fim.

The movie ends with a shot of Petit practicing walking in his backyard in Woodstock, NY. He's older now, but still incredibly talented. The rope across the yard is a long walk only a few feet off of the ground, and the final image is a kind of mix of memories: it's simultaneously the meadow Petit practiced in through his youth and the wire between the towers. The image of his feet on that wire lingers for a long time after the film ends.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Musical Wednesdays: Two Announcements

I thought about doing something to tie in with Monday's post and my upcoming post about "Man on Wire," but the more I think about it, the thinner that hypothetical post would be. So I'm going to veer away (someday I'll manage to complete a week-long theme, I swear) and instead I will use today's post to say two quick things and then get out of the way.

1. There's a new Spoon album out this week, "Transference," and it's available on vinyl and as an mp3 download over at Amazon (or at your local record store). Spoon is consistently great, and I definitely recommend checking out this album.

2. This week, legendary singer Kate McGarrigle passed away. In addition to being an incredible folk singer, she was also the ex-wife of Loudon Wainwright III and the mother of Rufus and Martha Wainwright (probably the most musical family currently in existence). So here's a video to remember her by:

Monday, January 18, 2010

Fiction Mondays: Let the Great World Spin

This week, I've been reading Colum McCann's "Let the Great World Spin," which is not a story about Philippe Petit's tightrope walk between the Twin Towers. That event is central to the book--the story opens with a large crowd watching his walk on an August morning in 1974--but the novel itself is about a large cast of characters who witness the event. I'm not very far into it at this point, but it's beautiful. I think it's supposed to be read slowly, because the language in every sentence is so well-chosen, so perfectly constructed, that you want to make sure you take every word in.

Since I'm not very far in, I'm not going to talk much about the plot other than to say the opening section, about a religious man named Corrigan struggling for his soul when he moves to New York, is one of the most interesting character studies I've read in a long time. It's narrated by Corrigan's brother, who finds himself in a Bronx tenement, surrounded by prostitutes, thugs, and addicts, and is incredibly compelling. There's something I've noticed about Irish authors, though: instead of quotation marks, they use dashes to denote speech. Not in the first section (I think because it's a flashback), but later on. This is something I noticed when I read Roddy Doyle, and seeing it again made me wonder where it started. I cracked open "Ulysses" and saw that Joyce uses dashes as well, but was he the first? Did Irish authors pick this up as a kind of tribute to Joyce? This was how he did it, so this is how Irish writers do it? I'd be interested to know.

I picked up two books after Christmas, this one and Aleksandar Hemon's "The Lazarus Project," both of which I've been meaning to check out for some time. Oddly enough, these two writers have an excellent conversation in the new issue of the Believer. Check it out here. They talk about art, about the role of literature, and about something I've been wondering about: what happened to literary feuds? I mean the real, fisticuffs kind of feud. Like Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. It reminded me of my favorite part of "The Savage Detectives," when Arturo Belano challenges a critic to a duel on the beach--where is that passion anymore?

Related to this book, I also watched "Man on Wire," the documentary about that same walk, Saturday night. I think this week's "Friday Films" will be about it, which makes this something of a theme week. The only question is: is there a song about this event? Maybe Wednesday will be a mini-essay on the Decemberists' "The Gymnast, High Above the Ground."

Friday, January 15, 2010

Friday Films: Up in the Air

Last weekend, I finally got to see Up in the Air, the new movie by Jason Reitman, director of "Juno" and "Thank You for Smoking." It stars George Clooney as Ryan Bingham, a man who flies from city to city firing people. He spends the vast majority of every year in transit, working toward his ultimate goal: 10 million frequent flier miles. When his company decides to switch to an online-only firing system developed by a new employee, he decides to show her how he does his job, and why her system doesn't work. Along the way, he falls for another traveler and goes to his sister's wedding.

The timing of this movie, released in the middle of a horrible recession and double-digit unemployment, has gotten a lot of attention. Reviews have talked about how it takes a lot of nerve (in a good way) to release a movie about a moment that is still occurring, and I have to say I agree. When the vast majority of new releases are escapist, whether it's onto another planet or into a light romantic comedy, this is a movie that instead tells a story that is contemporary, rooted to right now. It's a different angle on the situation, though, and it's a challenge to make an unsympathetic figure like a layoff specialist into a likable protagonist. Of course, having Clooney never hurts. The man brings acting with his eyebrows to previously unimaginable levels.

It's also really interesting to see Reitman come into his own as a director. There are already habits that he has in his films that mark them as his own--the opening credit sequences in all three of his movies are excellent, and the way he divides to movies into chapters (in "Juno" it was seasons, in "Up in the Air," cities and their airports. He also uses a lot of excellent character actors (Simmons and Jason Bateman) to great effect. I would be interested to see if he could write a character for Bateman where he's not a terrible guy. I think they could pull it off. I've started to think there are two kinds of directors, the ones who are technically brilliant (Orson Welles) and the ones that get the best performances out of actors (Mike Nichols). There are some that are clearly both, like Scorcese, but for the most part I'd say there is a division. I started thinking about where Reitman falls, and I think it's the Nichols school: I didn't come out of the theater dazzled by technical achievement, but instead by the acting, from the lead characters and even from the supporting cast. Even Danny McBride, who has made his career so far in being insane and over the top, had a really restrained performance, and it was clear that he had thought a lot about what made his character work, how not to make him a caricature.

One of the most affecting parts of the movie was the use of non-actors in some of the firing sequences, as well as in the beginning and ending of the film--the director apparently placed ads where they were filming, asking recently laid-off people to talk about their experience on camera. The anger and frustration they captured was more interesting, and more compelling, than anything they could have accomplished using only actors. I was thinking about this after I left the movie theater, and I started wondering if this was the case because the stakes were higher for non-actors. There were actors as well, including Zach Galifianakis and J.K. Simmons, but for the people who were answering the ad, this wasn't just another day of work, but a chance to tell their stories, to be heard.

I definitely understand all of the buzz around this movie--it would be great to see it win the Oscar because of its relevance, its timeliness, but most of all, because it's a really good movie. It got me thinking about character arcs, about dramatic structure. It's not about redemption, I don't think (a character can't be redeemed unless they realize they've fallen), but it is about characters changing. The ending leaves a lot up to interpretation regarding Clooney's character, but I think the rest of the movie builds up to the moment and lets you decide his path.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Musical Wednesdays: The Flaming Lips do Pink Floyd!

I will admit that Pink Floyd is kind of a guilty pleasure band for me--I don't know why, but there are some songs I just really enjoy when no one is watching (this is different from AC/DC, which I can't call a guilty pleasure because I feel NO GUILT about loving "Back in Black."). I had an English teacher in 10th grade who showed us the "Dark Side of the Moon"/"Wizard of Oz" combination on our last day before summer vacation (which now strikes me as really, profoundly strange, but then was just a free morning). And I was raised listening to a lot of classic rock of this era. So when I heard the Flaming Lips' cover of "Any Colour You Like" (featuring Henry Rollins), I had to listen all the way through. And I can confirm at this time: it's weird.

Not bad weird, not by a long shot. In fact, it seems that the Flaming Lips, who made something of a rock opera/concept album with "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots," are uniquely suited to cover this album. They take the strange dreaminess of the original record and amplify it. I don't know how they decided to feature both Henry Rollins and Peaches on this album, but these choices only add to how weird the album is. It's definitely worth checking out if you're a Flaming Lips fan, or a Pink Floyd fan. Even if it's nothing more than a novelty, it's a surprising experiment and tribute to an influential act.

Now, the only remaining question is whether it matches up to "The Wizard of Oz." That sounds like a weekend plan to me.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Fiction Mondays: Oryx and Crake

This week, I've been reading Margaret Atwood's excellent "Oryx and Crake." It's a post-apocalyptic story, which means it touches upon a lot of the points of future-dystopian novels like "The Hunger Games," but in her hands it seems completely original, like she took the formula and decided to reinvent it. Sure, we have a solitary individual in a wasteland, but the human threats that usually plague these characters are absent. Instead, the character becomes a kind of prophet. Okay, I'm getting ahead of myself, so I'll rewind.

"Oryx and Crake" is a story about Snowman, who was known as Jimmy before humanity was completely wiped out by some kind of plague (I haven't gotten to the revelation of the nature and scope of the plague, but I'm sure it's coming.) The world before the plague was already dystopian, with giant genetic engineering companies existing on compounds while the rest of the country lived in the "pleeblands," and the most terrifying part of the whole thing is that it doesn't seem like a far-off future. They still use computers and the internet, and some of the research taking place within the corporations is already happening (isolating the glowing gene from jellyfish, for example). Snowman finds himself as possibly the last living human, left to care for a new race known as the "Children of Crake." These post-humans were invented by Snowman's best friend, Crake, who apparently was attempting to create a more peaceful, perfect race through genetic engineering.

Snowman has become something of an oracle for them, telling them the myths of Crake and of Snowman's lost love, Oryx. Oryx is the mother of the animals, according to Snowman, although genetic experimentation created these, too--it is a world populated by "rakunks," raccoon-skunk hybrids, and "wolvogs," dangerous wolf-dogs. I'm just about halfway through the novel now, but it's incredibly interesting. In addition to the problems of being (possibly) the last human on earth, including a dwindling food supply and madness brought on by isolation, Snowman finds himself trying to explain concepts of the "Dark Ages" to the Children of Crake: there's a particularly great moment where he's trying to imagine an explanation for toast. It's incredibly bleak, but the way the world before the plague is presented is somehow worse. It's almost as though someone pressed a reset button when things got to their most depraved and desperate.

This novel is the first in a trilogy, the second being the new "Year of the Flood," and I think that title gives a big hint toward the purpose of the plague. In the biblical flood, God decides that humans are getting too evil and decides to wipe them out. In this world, it seems that someone, possibly Crake, decided the same thing. But unlike God, Crake didn't want to risk humanity destroying things again, so he made his Noah (or Noahs) a race of peaceful, vegetarian "Crakers."

I highly recommend this book, especially if you're into the genre of post-apocalyptic science fiction, but even if you're not. The novel, more than being science fiction, is a really terrifying and brilliant look at science going too far, and a great story about a character trying to live in a difficult situation. I'm really looking forward to seeing where Atwood is going with this--I can't believe how different this book is from the last one of hers I read, "Moral Disorder." Her ability to write so many different kinds of fiction is just incredible, but more impressive is her ability to present compelling characters in any type of story.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Musical Wednesdays: The Great Indie Rock Schism

Today I visited Pitchfork and found their reader poll, summing up what the site's readers thought were the top albums of 2009. I was really disappointed to see that the number-one album was Animal Collective's "Merriweather Post Pavilion." I don't know, I just don't really like Animal Collective. Most of the top ten, excluding Grizzly Bear's "Veckatimest," are some of the most overplayed independent records of the year, including Fever Ray and Girls, two bands that usually make me change the station when their songs come on. Right at number 11 is probably my least favorite album of the year, Passion Pit's "Manners," and number 17 is Dan Deacon's "Bromst." Again, these are change-the-channel albums for me. My favorite albums of the year? Didn't even crack the top twenty.

So I started thinking about something that occurred to me a few months ago: there is going to be an indie rock schism this year. A few years ago, when you said "Indie Rock," there were a few bands that were understood to fall under this catch-all name. While they were all very different, they were all rock, whether in the form of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs or the Shins. Some of it was more folksy, some of it was a little harder-edged, but it all could be called rock. But the rise of what are essentially dance bands in the later part of the last decade makes me think that a new genre is needed. Because dance music is not generally called "rock." This decade, there will be indie rock, with the same spectrum of folksy to hard, but independent dance music will emerge as its own genre, with its own stations. That's my big prediction for 2010.

I think this has to happen because of the sense of dissonance in indie rock stations--in general, I get the sense that the people who like the rock-influenced music are not great fans of dance-type music, and I don't know if that goes both ways, but I'd be much more likely to keep a station on if I didn't know that the latest Passion Pit single was just around the corner, or if I didn't have to wait through Fever Ray's "When I Grow Up" before I hear the new acts I'm really excited about, like Thao with the Get Down Stay Down.

Okay, cranky old man rant over. Let's go, indie rock stations. Split it up. I'll even take Animal Collective, if that's what it takes.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Fiction Mondays: What to Read in 2010?

Well, now that the holidays are over, it's time to get back on schedule on this blog. Which makes today the first "Fiction Monday" of 2010! Instead of reviewing favorite books or stories of the past year, or even decade, I'm going to cover some books I'm really looking forward to this year. I'm right in the middle of "Gilead," but I think my next project after this is going to be either "Let the Great World Spin" or maybe "Catching Fire," the sequel to "The Hunger Games." Which brings me to the first book I'm excited about in 2010: the final book in the "Hunger Games" trilogy, due out this August.

I will be the first to admit I'm a geek (I got a lot of Star Wars, comic book, and Venture Brothers related gifts for Christmas.), and this series is like a combination of "Battle Royale" and about a half-dozen great dystopian novels. Despite its clear influences, though, it seems fresh and new and entirely its own world.

The second book I'm really looking forward to this year is the new book by Joshua Ferris, the author of "Then We Came to the End." It's called "The Unnamed," and it's about a lawyer who has an affliction where he just can't stop walking. It sounds a lot more serious than Ferris' first book (not that "Then We Came to the End" did not have its serious points--it's just that the novel as a whole is kind of a black comedy), and I'm hoping he doesn't have a sophomore slump.

The third book I'm looking forward to picking up this year is actually the paperback version of one that came out in 2009: Jonathan Lethem's "Chronic City." I'd really love to read it, but I couldn't see spending hardcover money on it. It was just a bit out of my price range. But I've read a lot of reviews naming it as one of the best of the year, so I intend to check it out.

What else should I read this year? I am always looking for suggestions. Is there anything you can't wait to get your hands on? How about books that you received or gave for holiday gifts?